FAT: Science and Body Image

Fat.

It’s an ugly word, isn’t it? It’s rare that we find it used with any sort of positive connotation- more often than not, it’s an insult (one that is, sadly, often directed not at others, but at one’s self). We associate “fat” with all the things we strive not to be: gluttony, greed, laziness. The only time we mention fat in a positive light are the times we’re quick to qualify it (“Avocado has the good kind of fat”).

But here’s the thing- fat isn’t just an adjective. Oh no, it’s so much more than that. It’s a noun. It’s inside of you at this very moment; it’s in your food, your beauty products, your latte. Beyond being a derogatory term thrown around like the deepest insult to mankind, it’s life-giving, life-supporting, and life-essential. In fact, it’s one of the three essential macronutrients (right up there with protein and carbohydrates), and it’s one of your body’s main fuel sources.

Here’s where things get confusing- there are two different types of “fat” thrown around here. There’s body fat, which your body stores with energy from your food (all of your food, not just “fatty” foods) that helps you maintain homeostasis by keeping you warm, energized, and stable. It helps regulate your hormones and keeps your body assured that no famine or otherwise stress is occurring in your life. Then there’s dietary fat, which you consume in your food. While it has similar properties to body fat, it’s a completely different beast.

THE SCIENCE: Dietary fat is the most calorically dense macronutrient (meaning less of it will give you more energy), but that shouldn’t scare you off: it’s also the most satiating macronutrient, meaning it will keep you fuller longer. While carbohydrates are necessary for active individuals and a healthy lifestyle, they aren’t your body’s best fuel to run on. Carbohydrates are your body’s preferential fuel source, meaning your body will burn and use them faster. While this initially seems like the best option, what it does is give you a quick burst of energy, spike of adrenaline, and then fast crash. When carbohydrates aren’t as abundantly present, however, your body turns to fat (first, the fat immediately available through recently consumed food, and then to the stores on your person). Fat is designed to be a longterm fuel source, and therefore offers longer-lasting, more even, and better regulated energy for your body, without the up-and-down “hangry” roller coasters most people experience. That’s not to say you should extremely restrict your carbohydrates, however. Instead of cutting out carbs, choose nutrient dense ones like starchy veggies.

THE BODY IMAGE: Now, neither of those kinds of fat sound like such a scary thing on their own, does it? In fact, they sound like pretty good things. They keep your body fueled and stable, they keep you from mood swings and energy crashes. In fact, at this point in the article you might be cheering to yourself, “I love fats! Fats are great!”

Until the next time you find yourself tearing up in a dressing room about the zipper not going up all the way.

It’s easy to appreciate fat on paper, but once we notice the way our thighs look in shorts when we sit down or the way our stomach folds over a little when we bend over, we have this guttural instinct to feel repulsed by our own self. Women and men everywhere dread summertime pool parties, or refuse to wear short sleeves in miserably hot weather, because of one simple thing: shame.

Shame because we combine fat with gluttony in our heads. Shame because things should be smooth and pretty standing up or sitting down. Shame because things jiggle and move when her’s doesn’t look that way.

But here’s the thing- you have fat. You also have fingernails. You don’t call yourself “fingernails”, do you? No. And in that same vein, you are so much more than “fat”. You have fat, and in fact, you should have fat. Fat lines your organs, fat regulates your hormones, fat keeps you full and energized. Fat is more than the thing you call yourself when you catch a glimpse in the mirror of your thighs.

Is the worst thing you could possibly be fat?

We throw it around like it’s the deepest insult to our being. Calling a little girl fat will cement it in her mind forever, lasting so much longer than comments that actually target who she is, not what she looks like. “You’re fat.” stings deeper than “You’re not nice.” But why? Why is it, that in our society, we’ve decided that who we actually are as a person is not of more importance than what we appear to be on the outside. There are countless things worse than having fat on your body- being apathetic, being untruthful, being unmotivated. And yet our default insults always go back to what we look like.

Think back to when you were little, very little. When your belly was nothing but an aspect of silliness and wonderment. When your legs were nothing more than a vessel for play. When your arms only were of disappointment if they weren’t strong enough or long enough to reach something. We used to be very good at seeing the deeper meaning in ourselves, beyond how we appear. But somewhere along the line, we lost that.

Body image boils down to what a lot of things boil down to- qualifying our happiness. Just like we say “I’ll be happy when (I get that job/get that girl/get that paycheck)”, we so often think to ourselves, “I’ll be confident when (my stomach is flatter/my arms are toned/my thighs don’t jiggle).” 

But the reality is, we will never, ever, ever be fully satisfied with our physical appearance. Never. There will always be that one little thing, no matter the point in your life or your journey. You’ll always be a little to small, or a little too big, or a little too __________. That’s why we need to stop qualifying our happiness, and thriving in it at this moment. If we put off living life until we’re x, y, or z, we will never be happy. Waiting to be happy until you look a certain way may never come to fruition, and that’s okay. I’ll never be a 5’10” statuesque model. I’ve got a short torso and a wide back and muscly arms.

But I love it. I really, really do. I love my torso for holding my organs and being strong enough for arm balances and planks. I love my back and my arms for being strong enough for long down dogs and a million chaturangas. I love what I can do, and so it doesn’t matter what I look like.

On a good day, of course. No one is completely confident in their appearance all the time. But when I reflect back on my accomplishments and my skills, I know people won’t remember me for what my belly looks like. They’ll remember me for the words I write, the classes I teach, the love I spread. They’ll know me for who I really am.

We have fat. We eat fat. But we are all far too great to be defined by the word “fat”.

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